India has an international civil aviation safety rating equal to Swaziland’s and worse than Pakistan’s. That the rating downgrade was done by the US’ Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is irrelevant.
The FAA’s safety audits are based on prevailing international standards that India accepts. It is noteworthy that civil aviation minister Ajit Singh has not denied the FAA’s criticisms, but merely argued that India had taken remedial measures that the audit did not take into account. What is troubling is that the downgrade was predictable. The gap between what international standards require and what the Directorate-General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) is doing has been widening for some years. It is telling that no attempt has been made by the government to fix responsibility for this turn of events — possibly because it would boomerang on the authorities concerned.
Civil aviation in India should have been a success story. India is geographically well-placed to be a hub. It is the sort of industry that the country would have done well by: A service industry with high rates of employment and where competitive labour costs matter, plenty of economic spin-offs in tourism and business, relatively low levels of investment and technology. Instead, the recent history of civil aviation in India is one of bankrupt airlines and volatile ticket prices merged with high levels of corruption and policy-fixing. The safety downgrade is symptomatic of the dominant culture of flying in India: A system treated as a milch cow from which to extract patronage, money and worse. Air India is jokingly called an urban employment guarantee scheme as it functions like an expensive, leaky welfare system. Foreign airlines are the only players which seem to be able to make profits from the Indian market. One can be proud of the new airports that have come up around the country — but also wonder why they are awash in red ink.
There has been only muted criticism of the haphazard manner in which the flying business has taken off in India. As long as the sector seemed to outwardly improve, there has been a tendency to presume there was no reason to complain. The downgrade has shown that the sector is in a rickety state. The DGCA, for example, is a body largely unchanged from what it was 15 years ago. But the skies above India have become barely recognisable during that time. The civil aviation ministry is a vestigial organisation, largely an outpost of crony capitalism. In most developed countries there is no such ministry, they just have a regulator. The creation of a new civil aviation authority has been approved but remains to be implemented. India can become a monarch of the skies, but only after an overhaul of a system that keeps civil aviation permanently grounded.